One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my somewhat youngish life is that when someone offers to rent you an apartment without knowing anything about you, and spends most of the time showing it complaining about being “done wrong” by previous tenants, you should probably gtfo.
However, gorgeous damask foiled wallpaper, original hardwood floors and reasonable rent in my ideal neighborhood got the better of me, even though the landlord, who lived downstairs gave me the creeps.
He rarely looked me in the eye when showing the apartment and mumble seemed to be his default speech mode, which did not make his towering 6’4”ish, 300-poundish frame less intimidating.
When I mentioned my misgivings to a friend, she explained it away as natural fear stemming from a previous violent relationship. Not all men are bad, she said. Not all men are bad, I repeated to myself as I looked at my tween daughter.
A thorough background check revealed nothing at all, much less anything sex-offendery or otherwise violent or unstable. To protect myself, I drew up a basic document that stated he agreed to rent me the property for one year. (He hadn't bothered to draw up a lease.)
Still, I repeated my friend’s refrain again as I walked upstairs past the flower garden he maintained. Probably a socially awkward gentle giant, I assured myself. A therapist once called me hypervigilant, and I am even more hypervigilant when it comes to protecting my daughter.
My friend, herself a survivor of rape and someone I admired for her sanity in the face of such, agreed that this could be a kind of exposure therapy. So I just kept convincing myself until I couldn’t.
Three days after moving in, I saw that he’d placed my mail on my makeup table while I was at work. This was a huge red flag that he did not understand boundaries. We were two females -- one underage -- and he a male. And I thought it generally understood that tenants like their privacy.
Still, I tried to sound polite and non-judgemental when I called to tell him that I’d really appreciate it if he left my mail in the basket in the foyer. He seemed offended, but I could not tell much by his coarsely mumbled “OK” before he hung up the phone.
The following Monday I saw a note posted to my door about leaving bloody tampons everywhere. This was especially hurtful because I’d just gotten out of the hospital due to excessive uterine bleeding and was still bleeding quite heavily.
My tampons were contained to the wastebasket in the bathroom. I didn’t even want to believe that he could be upset that I was having a period. No, that would be crazy.
Hours later, my daughter returned to the car, tearfully carrying a note he’d left on the door. "I have a paying renter moving in," it read. The rent was due by the 5th of the month; the 1st was not even completely over.
Perplexed, I called him, made it clear I would have the rent that was not even late within an hour, and it was clear he was making no effort to comprehend or even hear me. He talked over me and hung up on me when I kept calling.
I would’ve left right then, because it was clear he had some serious issues and this was now unsafe emotionally but I’d given him $2,400 before I’d even moved in 3 weeks earlier and was broke save for my most recent paycheck.
A crazy thought emerged…. had he taken my money and intended to throw me out to do it all over again with someone else? Is that why he complained about previous tenants?
Despite its niceties, the apartment seemed to maintain a sort of transient feel, like that of a weekly motel. It is my belief that he rented to people in tough situations who were unaware of or did not have the resources to stand up for their rights.
The note was the final straw. Up to this point, I’d tried hard to maintain my composure and not let on that anything was amiss to my daughter. He was now messing with my baby and it was go time on this asshole.
I called him, and in before he hung up on me again, I let him know I wanted my day in court and that he could not get away with bullying women and children. I was sincere about my sentiment, but I also had no place to go. I’m kind of a lonely nerd without many friends, and my family lived in the state I’d fled to escape the domestic violence.
Now terrified out of my mind, I began to spend my work breaks calling shelters from the the privacy of my car. It was the height of summer, and they were all full. There were 4 shelters serving a metro area of about 900,000 people; one was for men only and another was only at half capacity due to a renovation.
I put away the rent money he refused to find another place, but I’d had an eviction on my record from eight years prior and nobody would rent to me, even with a steady job, lack of criminal history, recent positive rental references, and an explanation that I only defaulted on my rent due to medical issues.
Application fees and taking time off work to look for a place began to eat away at money I’d planned to spend on rent.
I, proud independent single mom, put all my business on Facebook for help. I got some well-meaning but vague legal advice. FB friends offered to reach out to people they knew, but they either flaked out or the person they contacted would send me into another fruitless loop.
Later, my status updates served a darker purpose -- as a potential trail of evidence should he take a more violent turn. I wiki’d, NoLo’d, searched everywhere for help but it was no where to be found. I put ads out for roommates that were only answered by older single men, which was obviously more of a no now than ever.
My daughter stayed at her best friend's house and I began a relationship with a kind but not amazing guy so I could be gone as often as possible. I began sprinkling baby powder on the stairs going up every time we left to determine whether he’d been there while we were gone. I felt as nuts and desperate as it sounds.
Meanwhile, he refused to go through the courts. He employed a system I’ve since learned is called constructive eviction, i.e., giving someone so much hell they leave. It’s often used by dubious landlords to save on court costs with tenants they are betting don’t know their rights or have the resources to stand up for them.
While out of the apartment one day, he removed the window air conditioners, hoping to sweat us out in ninety degree 100% humidity weather. He’d turn his music up so loud the walls vibrated.
When I came home from work, he’d be sitting on the back deck, drunk. He’d yell to me that I’d better leave, he wasn’t stupid, I was stupid, those were stupid pills in my dresser. He was referring to my anti-depressants.
He called me a fatass, terrible mother, and slut too many times to count. Knowing that he wasn’t exactly an upstanding citizen genius rendered his opinion nil to me, but I could not believe he’d stoop so low as to say these things within my daughter’s earshot.
I called the police on three occasions, but the responding officer stated there was “no law against being an asshole on your own property” and that I should stop asking them for help in civil matters.
Crossing the 50 feet or so between my car and the sole entrance became an emotional minefield. I’d recite parts of Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman oratory style for courage. “You may wonder why my head’s not bowed…” began my rallying cry that he could not break my spirit.
Between all the police intervention and mental abuse, it felt very much like a replay of the severe domestic violence I’d worked so hard to escape. In a horrible coincidence, he shared the same name and drove an almost identical car as my former abuser.
Needless to say, my PTSD returned and my wellbeing took a major nosedive. I gained 50 pounds and my hair was falling out. There were times my blood pressure soared to 220/120 despite no major history of hypertension.
We finally did go to court, which consisted of the judge asking how much time I needed to vacate the property, then turning to the landlord to ask about rent owed, which ended with him saying he could recoup that in a jury trial and landlord declining.
In the split second I had to consider whether I agreed, all I saw was relief at the possibility that it could be over. I did stand up to him in that I made him go through legal channels to “remove” me versus bully me out, but I will always wish I could’ve exposed his callousness to a jury that would’ve given him the stink eye, and watched him clench his teeth as I drove away to the house he would’ve had to buy me.
I now live in a condo that is anything but centrally located. It is surrounded by woods that I enjoy on plastic Adirondack chairs, which I have to drag back inside because I don’t have much furniture.
Yet, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’ve re-engaged in politics, determined to do my part and see to it that no other family has to be bullied at home. I’m learning to build boundaries, not the walls I’d built when I left my abuser over a decade ago, which has allowed me to make friends.
I feel safe in this smaller community, in all ways, and I’ve taken up riding my bike again, where I feel lightweight and chase my dreams.